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HPPR Health, Education & Welfare

Science And Spirituality

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Edward R. Curtis, 1868 – 1952 from Library of Congress
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You are listening to the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club. My name is Freddy Gipp, I am an enrolled member of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, and my Indian name is T’san T’hoop Ah’n, meaning “Lead Horse”, in the Kiowa language, I graduated from the University of Kansas and head a small community development firm based in Lawrence, KS.

In her book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman tells the story of Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl whose epilepsy was diagnosed in Merced, California.

Fadiman writes about the treatments recommended for Lia by her doctors, Neil Ernst and Peggy Philip in California and the conflict that transpired between this Western medical approach and the traditional Hmong cultural beliefs about epilepsy.

In a rare instance, where a medical condition is highly regarded as a spiritual conveyor in another culture, The Lee’s simply could not compute with what was given to them by Lia’s doctors due to basic inequities of 1980s western health care. They could not speak English nor read it and had to keep up with an extensive and ever-changing medical regimen to adequately handle Lia’s volatile condition.

In traditional Hmong culture, the translation for the word epilepsy means “qaug dab peg”, or in English, “the spirit catches you and you fall down”, hence the title of the book. The Hmong firmly believe that quag dab peg is an illness of distinction and should not be a cause for concern, affirming that the few who suffer from episodes transcend into shamanism through their experiences and visions they encountered in a realm rarely accessible to anyone else.  

It was in this specific belief that served as the defining cultural paradox for Lia and her family. A clash between two archaic structures of science and spirituality, reason and religion, prescriptions, and prayers, all pitted against each other, in defiance of what is absolute and what is absent.

When I was a child, I was very sick with pneumonia. I frequented the hospital many times, exhausting the resources of my then-single mother and family who had just moved up from Oklahoma. They mentioned the doctors, the treatments and practices and how I was not showing signs of improvement. There was even subtle speculation that I would have died at a very young age if something had not been figured out. It was then decided by my late grandmother to take me to Oklahoma to see an Indian doctor that she knew from her community. In what Western medicine couldn’t achieve, the Indian doctor cured me and I have been healthy ever since. I have faint memories of it, in a dream sequence frame, and it has been a guiding factor that makes me empathize with the Lee family.

From the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club, my name is Freddy Gipp.